Timekeeping 101

Louxor Obelisk, Paris - March 19, 2005 (cropped and slightly rotated) Copyright © 2005 David Monniaux in Wikipediaor…How Humans Kept Time – a history

Most animal keeps some sort of schedule, albeit a very basic one. Nocturnal animals sleep during the day and hunt and play during the night while diurnal creatures sleep during the night (like humans for example). However, the history of clocks began once humans created civilizations – thousands of years ago. Their desire for order required more punctuality than biology allowed.

THE SUN – one of the oldest tools for keeping time

The history of clocks stretches back many millennia. Ancient people used the sun as early as 5500 years ago. Egyptians built obelisks as a sort of giant sundial, and the shadows that it created under the sun’s glare allowed users to read time.

By about 800 A.D., the first mechanical clocks began to appear with new innovations being introduced to make these clocks more accurate. If truth be told, the sundials and water clocks were more accurate than the early mechanical clocks while often being smaller. Mechanical clocks soon proved to be superior by having no mess (water clocks could leak and had to be refilled) and working all the time (sundials don’t work on cloudy days and during the night).

New inventions advanced clocks to smaller sizes and more precise measurements of time over the coming centuries. Bells allowed whole towns to be notified of the time from a single clock, most often in a church tower, and springs vastly increased their accuracy.

Pendulums were better yet, requiring daily upkeep to operate but allowing the constant of Earth’s gravity to achieve unprecedented accuracy. Over the next few hundred years, minor modifications were added that slightly increased their efficiency and accuracy, but none were as big as the microchip which would forever revolutionize clocks.

The microchip burst forward the history of clocks by hundreds of years. In a matter of months, consumers were able to plug digital clocks into any electrical outlet and receive an easy to read display that could accurately keep time without any user interaction. In all of the history of clocks, no invention was nearly as important to keeping accurate time.

Here at Stephens and Stephens Clocks in Havre de Grace, we hold a particular fondness for the tick-tock of the pendulum clock. There’s a certain comfort to the sounds of this remarkable piece of history and human ingenuity.

(Keep watch for another timekeeping development early in human history: water clocks.)


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